By Emma Emeozor
The famine that hit Ethiopia between 1983 and 1985 made Africa a laughing stock in the international community. It was not because famine was a strange phenomenon, as with the case of the Ebola virus, rather, it was because the famine occurred in a continent endowed with abundant natural resources. The real circumstances that led to that ugly incident in Ethiopia was the government’s single-minded focus on insurgency and war. Huge amounts of money were spent on weapons, to the neglect of agriculture and infrastructure. Thus, by the time drought and climatic factors set in, the Ethiopian government was financially constrained to adequately respond and salvage the situation.
The over 400,000 casualties recorded were caused by human rights abuses. Redemption came only after the intervention of the international community. After that, the thinking at the time was that Africa had learnt a lesson and proactive measures would be adopted to guard against a repeat.
But the situation in South Sudan has shown that African leaders have not learnt much from the Ethiopian experience. It is for the same reasons that famine has been reported in neighbouring South Sudan. While the people are dying from hunger, the government and the rebels are fixated on war, spending millions of dollars on weapons to prosecute a civil war triggered by power struggle, avarice and corruption. The activities of insurgents and militia groups have remained a major source of distraction for the fragile government.
A recent report aptly captured the whole situation: “Man-made food crisis threatens more than 100,000 people after war and a collapsing economy devastate agriculture in the country.” Though the history of South Sudan is a complex one, punctuated with bloody episodes of fighting dating back to the colonial era, the expectation was that, after it achieved its dream of independence in 2011, peace would return to the land. Certainly, the people had high hopes at independence. It never occurred to them that their story would be that of shattered dreams. Six years after the euphoria that marked the attainment of independence, South Sudanese are trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea.
And as they wonder at the nature of the independence, the poser is: Will South Sudan ever achieve peace? This, of course, is a difficult question even for the citizens to hazard an answer. Prior to achieving independence from Sudan, the people (the Christian south) had been locked in a protracted civil war with (the Muslim) north for over two decades. At the forefront of that war were the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM) and its military wing, the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) led by Dr. John Garang. In January 2005, a peace agreement was signed, bringing the war to an end after SPLM and Khartoum agreed on a power-sharing formula and a new constitution. As part of the peace deal, Garang was sworn in as Vice President to President Omar al-Bashir on July 9, 2005. It was also agreed that soldiers of the SPLA would be upgraded to equal status with the Sudanese army. And the world heaved a sigh of relief.
But the cold hands of death snatched Garang in a helicopter crash, six weeks after he assumed office. Garang was “a strong voice against outright secession by the south, calling instead for autonomy and power-sharing.”
South Sudan today was not the South Sudan Garang bargained for. Though Dinka by tribe, he tried to carry every tribal group along, instilling confidence and hope in the people. Although there were instances of brutality in his time, he exercised a modicum of candor in dealing with every section of the region.
Garang was the biblical Moses of South Sudan. His mission ended abruptly on the eve of independence, which came on July 9, 2011, as a fallout of the 2005 agreement. The 10 southern states became known as South Sudan, the youngest country of the world.
Analysts were optimistic that the country would make swift socio-economic progress, considering that it was an oil-rich nation. It had a strong agricultural base, producing cotton, sesame, livestock, groundnuts, gum arabic and sugar. It was also rich in minerals, including iron ore, copper, chromium ore, zinc, tungsten, mica, silver, gold, and hydropower.
All that was needed was good and committed leaders that would harness the resources for the good of the people, a leadership that would put service above personal ambition and emphasis unity and peace rather than orchestrate conflict and exploit the differences between the ethnic groups.
How did the country sink into anarchy not too long after independence? It has been a blame game between the inaugural president and his vice president. It is a tale that again makes Africa a laughing stock in the comity of nations. What the situation in South Sudan immediately brings to the fore is how the elite use ethnicity to drive their political ambition, at the expense of the nation.
President Salva Kiir is Dinka by tribe, while former Vice President Riek Machar is a Nuer by tribe. The power struggle between the two has been manipulated to take on the garb of an ethnic struggle. The trick Kiir and Machar played on the people (the Dinka and the Nuer) was to remind them of their pre-South Sudan struggle over land and resources. However, the two groups united in the fight for independence.
Former United States Secretary of State, John Kerry, once brokered a ceasefire between Kiir and Machar. It lasted only a few days. The African Union had tried the same thing, with no success.
As the world bemoans the fate of the country and prays for peace to return, another ugly scenario seems to be playing out, to the dismay of donors and humanitarian organisations. Last month, a renegade general launched a new rebel group, the National Salvation Front, and called for the overthrow of Kiir, accusing the president of destroying the country.
“Kiir is killing our people, Kiir has betrayed the aspiration, the hope of our people,” General Thomas Cirillo Swaka told Voice of America (VOA) South Sudan Focus, from an undisclosed location.
“So it is a must for the people of South Sudan . . . to come out at this historical juncture to see to it that Kiir is not there,” he said.
VOA quoted Swaka as saying that his group would “use every means possible” to bring down Kiir. He was evasive on the size of his army. He said: “My army is our people who love peace. My army is our people who love to be together, who love to be in unity.” The report described Swaka as a veteran of South Sudan’s two-decade battle for independence from Sudan. He was the army’s deputy chief of staff for logistics before resigning his position last month. According to the report, Swaka had released a manifesto last month accusing the Kiir administration of seizing power and property for the president’s own Dinka tribe at the expense of other ethnic groups.
South Sudan is home to many militia groups besides Machar’s rebel group and the notorious White Army. This means that the country has produced two generations that know nothing other than violence and war. Reports say the youths are mostly in possession of Kalashnikovs slung across their backs, in a country of about 11.3 million people. Who is to blame?
A National Geographic reporter had quoted a bodyguard in Machar’s army, Jacob, as saying, “God is punishing South Sudan.” Jacob had compared the country to Israel, saying, “I think they’ve done a bad thing long ago.” Jacob is not alone, as the report also quoted a top female commander in Machar’s army, Sarah Kier, as saying, “What happened in South Sudan, I think even God wouldn’t have allowed it, because the sin is too much.
“God can punish a whole nation because of one person just as God can also save a whole nation because of one person.”
Her statement was easy to interpret. God could punish the country because of Kiir and could save the country because of Machar. But between Kiir and Machar, who is a saint? There could be an answer but only when he who is willing to lay down arms in the interest of the nation is identified.
Nevertheless, Rui, another Nuer soldier, told the National Geographic that it was all an illusion: “I think it is just some kind of illusion, when you talk of South Sudan being punished by God.” He believes that “all of these disasters, or political conflicts, they happen as a result of many things.” An analysis of the situation in South Sudan shows a combination of evils (or sinful acts) taking place with impunity across the country, including ethnic cleansing, killing of children, rape, torture, forced displacement and rampant corruption, to mention but a few.
Corruption was a contributive factor to the famine ravaging parts of the country. Monies that would have been used to develop the country and provide infrastructure were diverted to private pockets and never accounted for. Kiir once publicly admitted that the level of corruption in the country was alarming.
In a letter published in newspapers, he said billions that should have gone into state coffers had instead gone into pockets.
“We fought for freedom, justice and equality. Many of our friends died,” he wrote, “Yet, once we got to power, we forgot what we fought for.” Reports said, in a follow-up letter, he asked the malefactors to return the funds in exchange for amnesty. What a way to fight corruption in high places!
Is there hope for peace in South Sudan? This may sound like a million-dollar question, considering how the two main leaders double-speak during peace talks. Machar has said he does not want war: “I did not think of fighting another war. I spent my best time, my productive years, prosecuting a war of liberation. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in another war.”
Kiir has made similar pledge about wanting peace in the country. Perhaps, now is the time for the regional bodies, particularly the African Union, and other mediators to change strategy for returning peace to the country. One such strategy would be getting the two antagonists out of the picture through persuasion.
This could be achieved if Kiir and Machar are persuaded not to contest election when the present tenure of Kiir expires. Also, there is the urgent need to review the constitution of the country with a view to putting appropriate clauses that would stem the tide of war while taking into consideration the diversity of the country.
The decision to build a new capital to be located in the centre of the country should be encouraged. Presently, some of the ethnic groups, particularly the Nuer, believe Juba is not fit for a capital because it is not central enough and it is dominated by the Dinka. The mission to enthrone sanity in South Sudan may be a difficult task but peace mediators must not give up.